25 Jul We need hope, not optimism – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 11 – July 23, 2023
Preacher: Rev. Phil Schmidt
The Epistle: Romans 8:12-25 We need hope, not optimism
There is report about a hospital which has a school teacher assigned to it. This teacher visits children at their hospital beds and gives them lessons, so that they can keep up with their school class. She was once asked to visit a boy and help him to deal with nouns and adverbs. When she entered his room, she was shocked by his appearance. He had suffered horrible burns and was in great pain. It was an awkward situation, and she wanted to leave immediately, but felt that it was her duty to stay with him. She said to him, “I am the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” The next morning, she returned and a nurse asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher started to apologize for disturbing him with school lessons, but the nurse interrupted her:
“You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back and responding totreatment. It is as though he has decided to live.”
The boy later explained what had happened to him. He thought that he was going to die, and he had given up hope of ever recovering from his burns. But when the teacher came, he regained his hope. As he put it: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
This incident can serve as a parable for us. We live in a world which always seems to be falling apart and heading towards an apocalyptic disaster. Just about every generation has had the feeling that they live in a world which has never been so bad. There is a danger that we might respond like the boy in the hospital, losing our motivation to make this world a better place because we think that everything is on a downward spiral.
In 1965 a song was written with the title “Eve of Destruction” which expresses this feeling of futility. In this song the world is depicted as being so full of hate, violence and nuclear warheads that a complete annihilation of the earth is not only inevitable, but imminent. This song was not based on factual and empirical evidence, but on the feelings of panic which arise when reports about horrible events dominate the news media.
This feeling, that the earth is on the eve of destruction, has been experienced by just about every generation, going back to the time of Jesus. If you want to read a scary story about apocalyptic catastrophes demolishing the earth, just read the last book of the Bible. Today, there is a so-called “last generation” which believes that it will witness the obliteration of life on this planet, unless something drastic happens, and so they carry out radical protest actions, like gluing themselves to streets or disfiguring artwork in museums.
However, destructive language and reckless behavior are not going to improve humanity. There is a sociologist by the name of Eboo Patel, who is also a leader in interreligious dialogue. He has pointed out that words have a powerful effect:
You can’t have a critical mass of people going around basically telling other people what they’re doing wrong and constantly undermining existing institutions if better ones aren’t replacing them. In popular discourse, there’s a model of social change that seems to say that if I tell you how much I hate you and totally delegitimize you, then something better will rise up from the ground. That’s craziness.
I’m a big believer in the stories that we tell. This is my understanding of religion, of pluralism, of social change: If you tell an inspiring story, people will want to move in that direction. If you only tell a terrible story…, then people will think that terribleness is inevitable…We want to encourage people — whether schools or churches or entire religions or nations — to be doing more of what we think is beautiful and healthy.
The boy in the burn unit of the hospital who thought he was dying illustrates how vital it is to have hope and promise. When a teacher came to him in his hospital room, he got the message that he was not doomed. When he realized that he had a future life, he became energized and his immune system was activated, helping him to move forward.
In this context, it is important to make a distinction between optimism and promise. Optimism has no liberating power. Optimism tends to ignore unwelcome facts. It tends to underestimate how dreadfully depraved people can be. Optimism has nothing to fall back on, when heartbreaking things happen.
The Bible does not encourage us to be optimistic. Instead it gives us promise. We need the divine promise that regardless of what might happen, our words and deeds will not be in vain, because God is stronger than anything which opposes his will. We need the promise that life will not end with disintegration, but with glory.
And so, God sent us a teacher. This teacher informed us about the type of behavior which will contribute to the future of this planet. Jesus referred to our future as the kingdom of God.
The term kingdom of God means that humanity has a destination, to which God is going to lead it. We are destined for resurrection and for a heaven and earth filled with God’s love and justice.
Another Biblical word for the future to which we are destined is the term “new creation”. Christian tradition has referred to the day of Christ’s resurrection as the 8th day of creation. According to Biblical reckoning, the first day of creation was a Sunday, because creation was fulfilled on the 7th day, when God rested and sanctified the Sabbath. So, the Easter Sunday on which Jesus rose from the dead, has been called the 8th day of creation, which means that a renewal of creation has been initiated. For this reason, historic baptismal fonts have 8 sides, reflecting this image of the 8th day. Through baptism we become participants in the resurrection of Christ and of the new creation.
In our epistle reading in the letter to the Romans, Paul writes about how the hope of salvation is not only meant for human beings but for the whole of creation. According to Paul’s formulations, creation “was subjected to futility”, creation is in “bondage to decay” and “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains”.
This language is apparently a reference to the creation story at the beginning of the Bible which describes what happened after Adam and Eve made themselves autonomous. When human beings decided that they should be their own gods, this did not only affect them spiritually, but creation suffered an ecological devastation: the ground was cursed and became desert-like, producing thorns and thistles; the production of bread required painfully hard labor. As God said to Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” Correspondingly, Old Testament prophets had a vision of the Messianic age, when the restoration of paradise would begin in the desert: spring water would gush to the surface, causing the wilderness to blossom and become fertile.
This vision of a renewal of creation is what we need in order to sustain our energy and maintain our endurance in the midst of climate changes. Paul’s letter to the Romans proclaims the promise of a renewed creation, set free from the bondage and decay which human greediness has imposed upon it. Paul’s vision is focused on the glory for which we and creation are destined:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
This promise should not be understood in a superstitious manner. This expectation of future glory does not mean that God will protect our planet in some magical way from the effects which our self-indulgence has had on it. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
However, the Bible gives us the promise that we are not the ones who determine the ultimate fate of human life. God alone is the sovereign ruler of the cosmos. Therefore, we are not destined for disintegration, but for an eternal glory which is beyond our comprehension. This promise means that whatever we do in love, faith and hope – regardless of how small our words and actions may be – will not be in vain but will contribute to the glory for which we are ordained. The warning of Galatians is also a promise. Our words and deeds of selfless love might seem to be insignificant, but they are like seeds of grain which will not be lost or obliterated, but will contribute to a final harvest of fulfillment.
Stephen Travis, a professor for New Testament at the University of Nottingham in England wrote the following.
Christian hope is not mere wishful thinking. It is a hope that leads somewhere – to the triumph of God. As people who have heard God’s loving invitation to share in his victory, we long for the day when the shout will be heard: ‘Praise God! For the Lord, our almighty God, is King! Let us rejoice and be glad; let us praise his greatness! ’The time between now and then may be long or short – but that day is approaching.